ellohay! West Michigan

Helping people help people, efficiently

Posted in clients by forgr on March 8, 2008

I personally volunteer for a number of nonprofit community organizations. I can’t help it, I need to work with my hands, and I need to feel like my day was spent making the world a little better. One of my most rewarding volunteer opportunities is working with an internationally know disaster aid organization (I’m not giving out their name, it’s not about them it’s about their clients).

I’m on a disaster action team, and I help respond to local residential disasters (fires mainly) one week out of each month. It’s challenging, it’s a rush, and I know that I’m helping people get back some sort of normalcy after a disaster. As an organization we’re there to provide to those in need in their darkest hours.

But, like most aid organizations, we can’t do much without filling out the paperwork. Our main client form is called a “125” (number changed to protect the organization). Every family we serve has to fill out this form with a volunteer from the organization.

The first time I heard about the online version of the 125 form was during my third paperwork update class at the organization. There were seven of us huddling around the table, all with piles of xeroxed memos, chewed pens, and exhausted eyes. We’d been to three of these update meetings in less than five months, there was another change on the form, and another confusing step to remember.

The 125 is a long paper form with rubber stamps all over it, and marked out boxes, used by the organization to register clients. It’s a terribly awkward experience for both parties. We have to ask them about their name, former address and talk through the whole event with them while we write down everything they say. It takes an average of 45 minutes per client to fill out.

Imagine that you get home from work, and your house is on fire, it’s been on fire for an hour or so, and it’s completely destroyed. There are firemen, police, fire trucks, lights, hoses, smoke, ash. Your neighbors are out on their lawns staring at the flames and the smoke. The vinyl siding has melted off, all the windows are broken. The fire chief comes over to you and tells you that it’s gone, and you can’t go in to get anything, it’s not safe.

A truck appears, two volunteers in red vests hop out and introduce themselves. They offer you a place to sit in the back of their vehicle. They give you a blanket and a bottle of water, and loan you their phone so you can call your wife or husband or daycare center. You’re in shock right now. You only know how to do basic things, answer yes, no, you have no idea of the gravity of what’s going on or what will happen next. You don’t have insurance, the blood drains from your face, you sink.

They can help get you back on track. We can help.

Back to that paperwork, the 125 form. Since I’ve been on the disaster action team, I’ve filled out at least 20 of these Frankenstein forms. It’s a bad form, and an old form, and it takes a long time to fill out.

So. What does this have to do with digital inclusion you ask? Everything.

Last month I was sitting at home, watching the local news, folding laundry, and I see a breaking news story of a large apartment fire in town. Wood TV8 news reported that there were 100 families displaced from the apartment fire. It’s big, it’s bigger than any dispatch I’ve ever experienced, and a bigger event than Kent County has seen in a long time. I call my team leader, he’s watching the same thing on tv, trying to get a hold of the Fire Chief.

I put on my work clothes, clothes I know will stink of smoke when I get home. I put on my junk coat, warm hat, gloves, boots, and my reflective vest. I kiss my husband and tell him that I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I have my phone, I’ll try to call later.

5:30pm hear about the fire
5:31 call team leader
5:40 leave home
5:55 get to Chapter, I’m the first one there… there are no other tire tracks on the fresh snow that I can see…
6:10…I reread my shelter operations manual, count my client assistant cards, make sure I have at least two pens, flashlight, organization business cards, reference materials…
6:20 finally two cars drive in, we head inside
6:30 gather paperwork, everyone’s on phones, heat up water for cocoa
6:45 wait for instructions, wait for client headcount to start filling ERV with supplies
7:00 get numbers, find out what’s necessary to bring with us to the site, call two McDonalds to have them start making coffee, local ERV leaves to go to site
7:30 fill ERV with more supplies
8:10 finish filling national ERV
8:30 leave chapter to head to pick up coffee
9:30 finally get two cambros filled with hot coffee and head to site
10:00 get to the site, find out we’re not supposed to be there, we’re supposed to be at the shelter

10:20 get to shelter, park in back, check in with shelter supervisor
10:30 start unloading ERV, watch the other team finally set up paperwork area, start 125 processing
11:00 finish unpacking ERV, move inside to warm up, get water
11:15 get orders for next task… no orders… make stuff up
11:30 ask for direct orders… no orders… ask why trailer full of cots, blankets and pillow hasn’t been unloaded yet
11:45 get key to trailer, start unloading trailer with volunteers and clients, setting up cots, men and woman’s rooms
1:00 am finish setting up cots, help get clients into beds, take shift filling out 125’s for remaining clients
2:45 finish fourth and final 125, gave out $1,800 to clients on their own credit cards, get final clients to bed
3:00 get in car to go home

So what, right? It was a crappy night and we helped people, gave them some money. We helped people in need within 24 hours of the disaster.

It’s not good enough, our clients lost everything. Burned, gone. The roof over their heads, their clothes, pictures, books, medicine, coats, shoes, music, photos, pictures, furniture, dishes, food, gone. Everything they used to be able to come home to, is gone.

We should have been there within the hour, we should have been able to get them processed, fed, comforted, financially aided, and into safe, warm hotels within that time. At least.

So how would we have done that? Technology, communication, training. If we had laptops, wireless internet, and used the online version of the 125, we could have achieved that in half the time that it did on that night. That’s not exaggeration. The online version of that form takes HALF the time to complete.

If nonprofit organizations had the ability to get free or low cost computers for their staff, education, and support, they have the right tools to make a difference, faster.

Why wait another day to make this difference, right? We need to do it now. Why should we make people sit for hours and hours after losing everything before we put a safe roof over their heads?

What if it was you who lost everything, what would you expect? You’d expect better, right? You’d want your emergency response team to have those tools to help you and your community, right?

One Response

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  1. Paul said, on February 22, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    nice post, joined your rss feed. Thanks as I’m reading articles on car donations

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